“Paradise does exist, but it’s empty,” Hans Urs von Balthasar used to say. Germany is not the paradise of the Eurozone, and Italy is not its hell. Italians and Germans know that. Italians and Germans forget that.
The rhetoric of heaven and hell becomes very appealing in moments of economic hardship, especially when politicians are up for re-election. When the rightwing newspaper “Il Giornale,” owned by Silvio Berlusconi, ran a front-page headline about the “Fourth Reich” alongside a picture of Angela Merkel, it was clear that we are living through one of those moments.
When politics plays out on the minefield of complicated historic relationships, lies and propaganda become its main tools. Germans believe that they have been giving money to Italy – which is untrue, since Italy has so far paid for rescue packages for Greece, Ireland, and Portugal, and will also pay for Spain. Italians believe that there’s a plot, that nasty Germans are simply exploiting the weakness to do a bit of cheap shopping in Southern and Southeastern Europe. They fear that companies like Ansaldo Energia, a power engineering company from Italy, will be bought up by German investors.
In normal times, this would be just defined as “the normal ways of the market.” In dangerous times, however, the fear of a foreign takeover results in a “barbarians at the gates” kind-of-feeling.
The fear that Germans will conquer Italy’s best companies comes with a new twist: not only will the barbarians take our goods and money, they will also take away our best brains, wrote the Italian right-wing press. In fact, the database of Italian graduates that includes the names and degrees of all engineers, doctors, mathematicians and others who have just finished their studies is now accessible to German companies. But we cannot blame Germany if our small and medium businesses invest little or nothing in research and development and are not attractive to bright graduates.
Italy is at a crossroads: either it becomes more like Germany and the rest of Northern Europe, or it becomes more like Greece and the Southern regions. If we orient ourselves towards the North, it implies a different allocation of public expenditures. Thus far, Italian politicians have used the coffers of the Treasury to attract votes: more public spending, more votes. But like politicians in Berlin, we have to plan more responsibly, cut down expenses, and rethink how we spend tax revenues. This might mean accepting that some politicians won’t be reelected.
Italy owes almost two trillion Euros in public debt. But where has all this money gone? Did we use it to build new roads and a new digital infrastructure? No. The problem is not public spending per se, but misguided spending. Since Italy joined the Eurozone, interest rates have dropped. Someone calculated that we saved around 800 billion Euros over a ten-year period simply because of lower interest rates. We could have used that money to reduce our debt by almost 50 percent! But it didn’t happen, and now the money has disappeared. Can we blame the Germans if they now demand stricter conditions in exchange for help. That’s nonsense. Every lender sets conditions, and Germany is no exception.
Italians and Germans share part of their souls. Until the death of Giordano Bruno, Italian philosophy was the most advanced scholarly tradition in Europe, it spawned the likes of Marsilio Facino, Pico della Mirandola, and Thomas Acquinas. The German tradition was weaker – but then came Christian Wolff, Georg Hegel, Immanuel Kant, Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, and so forth. Centuries ago, the great composer Johann Sebastian Bach studied the works of his Italian idol Vivaldi, but then Germany gave great composers like Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Gustav Mahler, and Richard Strauss to the world.
But our differences are strong as well. It took more than fifty years for Beethoven’s “Ninth Symphony” to reach Italy, the country of Verdi, Rossini, and Donizetti – a country that loved opera but that did not have a tradition of symphonies (with the exception of Respighi and a few others).
The French scholar George Dumezil once wrote that our differences are rooted in our myths (which the Roman writer Sallustio – living in today’s Italy – defined as “the things that have never been but will always be”). In Latin mythology, the word used to describe Gods is “beautiful.” Germans prefer the attribute “strong.” The Roman writer Tacito used to describe the people of Germany – the “barbarians” – as big and tall, and he was impressed by their strength. Even today, people buy Italian products because they are beautiful, and German products because they last long. But the word “barbarian” did not originally imply negative connotations: it simply translated as “foreigner.”
Sometimes at Linkiesta, the online newspaper we set up one and an half years ago, people accuse us of being supporters of the German world. But sympathy with the Germans is natural not only because of what is at stake in the economy. As the examples above show, our cultures are deeply intertwined. It might not always be clear to Italians who are not living in Milan or elsewhere near Italy’s northern border, but their traditional “cotoletta” dish is nothing but a Wiener schnitzel, the traditional food of Vienna. The “La Scala” theatre in Milan was set up by Austrians. Our main cathedral was built in a gothic style and resembles the cathedral in Cologne more than St. Peter in Rome. Years ago, an historian told me that the first years of Milan’s land register are still in German because the city’s bureaucracy, too, was set up by the Austrians.
It’s not by chance that Germany is our first trading partner. Even if paradise is empty, it’s natural for hell to trade with it.